The United States is in a legal feeding frenzy over intellectual property rights. As intangible items become commodified, everyone seems to want a share. There are legal controversies over who owns the images of the dead, over who wrote a phrase in a song, over reverse engineering of computer programs, over the use of the "look and feel" of a computer program, over ideas, over body parts, and over genetic material. Control over personal information is increasingly in the hands of database owners who compile information on everything from consumer tastes to medical histories. 1 Despite the dependency of ideas on borrowing, using, rephrasing, and appropriating the work of others, 2 the question is usually phrased as "How much can be owned?" not, "Should it be owned?"
When ownership of intellectual property is challenged, it is not questioned on the grounds that intellectual property should be a public good, but rather to what degree it can be property. 3 This distinction is important. When Pepsi trademarks the phrase "uh-huh," 4 when Daffy Duck's intellectual property lawyer calls the local newspaper to tell them they cannot quote the duck, 5 and when a man's cancerous organ becomes the object of property, 6 the boundaries of intellectual property become so expanded as to be oppressive.
Our current framework of intellectual property, while being enormously beneficial to the large information brokers of our time, is detrimental to the free exchange of information as well as to the ability of a world citizenry to participate in its own future. But this notion of the individual author who is in control of his or her creative work successfully conceals the larger political and economic implications of the intellectual property system where major owners such as Microsoft can